Anyone who had the misfortune of developing an addiction before the advent of modern substance abuse treatment was typically relegated to prison or an insane asylum, which was intended to force him or her into sobriety.

Today’s addicts aren’t incarcerated simply for having this deadly disease, but there’s a high percentage of inmates who are suffering from addiction and in need of treatment while in prison.

Moreover, the population of addicted inmates continues to grow as more and more addicts get incarcerated. Many have noticed and studied this trend, hoping to better understand why addicts are so frequently involved in crimes that get them imprisoned. Making matters worse, the available evidence suggests that incarcerating people who suffer from addiction is actually more harmful than helpful.

The Relationship Between Addiction and Criminal Behavior

The effects of being addicted to alcohol or drugs are very well documented. In particular, the disease is known to cause behavioral changes that become more abnormal or atypical as the addiction progresses. At the onset, such atypical behaviors include changes in appearance and demeanor, but they become much more pronounced over time.

One behavioral trend that has been identified indicates that those who suffer from addiction are more likely to commit crimes as the disease worsens.

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In fact, the effect of substance abuse on the national crime rate is considered one of the main reasons why the United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other developed nation1 with about one out of every hundred citizens currently incarcerated.

Out of all the crimes committed in the US, about 80 percent of those that lead to incarceration involve alcohol or drugs, and 60 percent of all people arrested for any crime test positive for at least one illicit substance at the time of their arrests. However, these statistics beg the question: Why are there so many crimes being committed by addicted offenders? It might seem that addicts are either uninhibited by intoxication or the fear of withdrawal trumps rationality and a sense of morality.2

3 Types of Crimes Committed by Addicted Offenders

According to a study, crimes committed by addicts can be broken down into three distinct types that are distinguished by what motivates the crime.

  1. Use-related crimes occur as a result of being heavily intoxicated. In instances of use-related crimes, it’s common for the addicted offenders to not realize they’re committing the crime as it’s occurring.
  2. The second type of crime is economic-related, which is committed as a means of funding one’s substance abuse habit and includes prostitution and theft.
  3. Finally, system-related crimes are a response to the legal system and include production, transportation and selling of illicit substances.3


Why Addicted Offenders Shouldn’t Be Incarcerated

While it’s generally understood why addicts are committing crimes that get them incarcerated, the next issue is whether or not incarceration is the best course of action. On the one hand, the penal system is predicated on the idea that those who commit crimes get punished accordingly. Therefore, the systemic response would be to try, convict and incarcerate an offender, addicted or not. However, there are a couple key problems with imprisoning those who suffer from addiction.

Problems with Incarcerating Addicted Offenders

1. Incarceration has proven ineffective in preventing addicts from further abuse of alcohol and drugs. According to estimates, approximately 95 percent of incarcerated addicts will return to substance abuse after their release from prison and 60 to 80 percent of them will commit new crimes.1

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2. While incarceration may address the crime, it doesn’t address the underlying problem or the disease that caused these individuals to resort to criminal behavior.

Moreover, the majority of offenders with a history of substance abuse will return to abusing alcohol and drugs after release since their addictions weren’t treated. There are also many who become addicts during their incarcerations due to the amount of drugs that are smuggled into prisons today. It’s estimated that approximately 65 percent of prison inmates in the US meet the diagnostic criteria for addiction.

However, only 11 percent of those individuals receive any form of treatment.

It’s clear that the punitive system is ill-equipped for dealing with the high rate of addiction among criminal offenders. Moreover, it’s been found that incarcerated addicts usually return to substance abuse after they’re released,4 which makes the incarceration seem ineffective and pointless.

3. There’s also the question of safety with regard to addicts who must go through withdrawal after being incarcerated. The most obvious problem with this scenario is the danger this poses. Although withdrawal doesn’t always put an addict in danger, there can be situations in which withdrawal can be so severe as to put a person’s health or even his or her life in jeopardy.

Accordingly, there have been a number of reports of individuals dying from severe withdrawal while in prison.5 Despite the dangers of detoxing without medical supervision, addicted offenders are regularly imprisoned without reservation and then left to their own devices, which should be considered criminally negligent.

Finding a Solution for Addicted Offenders

Of each tax dollar spent by the government on substance abuse, only 1.9 cents are used for addiction prevention and treatment while 95.6 cents are allocated to the punitive system.6 However, the punitive system is so over-saturated because many inmates get caught in a vicious cycle.

Without treatment that addresses the core issues, an offender will often get caught in a cycle of substance abuse, crime and incarceration.

One potential solution is to give addicted offenders the option to complete a rehabilitation program in lieu of a prison sentence, which has been the goal of drug courts that have emerged in many jurisdictions throughout the US.7

Additionally, there’s an obvious need for effective rehabilitation programs to be offered in prisons where addicted offenders — who represent the majority of all prison inmates — would be much more likely to stay sober upon release.

Getting Help

Suffering from addiction is a very lonely existence, but nobody has to go through recovery alone.

If you or a loved one would like more information about detoxification, addiction treatment options, call our toll-free hotline, 855-317-8377, and speak with one of our experienced, knowledgeable admissions coordinators.



Written by Dane O’Leary